Part rejection, part reflection

Thanks for a friend linking to it on Facebook, I was able to find the best article I have read on the London riots so far.

The argument it makes is simultaneously very simple, but also far less reductionist than the two positions (or rather caricatures of positions) we are seeing in the media. The first of these discourses – by far the dominant one, as pretty much every national politician is pushing it out – is that this is an example of mindless violence or simple criminality (for example David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today or this Telegraph leader column). The second – certainly less popular, but also present narrative – is to talk about the social backdrop to the riots (as occurs in this article).

Yet neither of these positions seems particularly plausible when carefully considered, since they both deprive the rioters of agency. Mindless violence is, by definition, an ill-considered act, while social explanations prioritise structure over agency. In both cases the end result is depressingly the same: inevitability, either because the rioters are simply a bad lot, or because (to employ a cliché that is in truth beyond parody) society made them do it.

An important consequence of taking either of these arguments to their logical conclusion (also raised in the blog post) is that it necessarily the deprives the events of the past few days of any meaningful politics. If we were looking for the politics of what has gone on in London and elsewhere, we come up against another simplistic duality. On the one hand, the "simple criminality" approach argues that there is no politics in this, since it is simple thuggery. The counter position is to see rioters as some kind of vanguard street movement for a broader political ideology, hell-bent on attacking capital and property, and taking on the forces law and order (or repression, depending on perspective). However, this latter position requires us to project far too much on to the rioters. There is no evidence that they have even a proto-ideology (although, to be fair, I have seen very little attempt by the media to actually try to talk to any of them, which, as this tweet on the Wikileaks feed points out, is quite strange). Crucially, I would suggest that there is no rejection of property or the consumer society to be found in the riots. Instead, the fruits of this regime seem to be coveted. Also, unlike some previous examples of civil disturbance – notably in Northern Ireland, but also in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 – rioters, at least in the latter days of the riots, seem far less keen to want to fight with police, but instead avoid them (this is ironic, given that the original spark for the event).

Yet it seems wrong to suggest that there is no politics in what is happening across the country. The Disorder of Things blog post argues that there is value understanding them through the philosopher Guy Debord, and his work The Society of Spectacle. Debord argues that mass mediated society has destroyed meaningful social associations and left only superficial performance. Meera and Joe argue that, in the context of the riots, transgression:

"[I]s the deliberate, obscene transgression, the planned aggression, the fearless Fuck You, and above all, its enjoyment. It is the last bit which is the most indigestible and ugly, and therefore roundly ignored or bracketed, but also the most important in terms of what it means as a political statement: in short, we are not like you, we do not fear you, we have no stake in this place, we will take what we want, and we will enjoy it."

This is a valuable insight, and takes us beyond any of the reductionist understandings listed above. It also seems to be born out in the reaction of citizens to the riots, as reported by the media. The events have certainly shown the amazing resourcefulness of people, notably through the #riotscleanup hashtag. At these events, as Zoe Williams noted in The Guardian today, the language used has emphasised the difference between honest, hard-working folk (those who follow the rules of society) and the rioters (those who transgress). Crucially, the former group has done everything it can to emphasise the "otherness" of the latter. Think for example of the photograph of the women wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that "looters are scum" (which by definition means something that is separate) or the interview with the BBC, in which a local businesswomen described them as "feral rats".

However heartfelt though, I would argue that such sentiments are very dangerous (and in so doing, disagree with the Disorder of Things blog post in one respect). As well as being transgressive, it seems that the riots are also simultaneously a hyper extreme version of values and failings common in our own society, looking arrogantly, angrily back at us. I am reminded of the 1978 zombie film, The Dawn of the Dead directed by George Romero (IMDB details here). The premise is simple: a group of post-zombie apocalypse survivors hide out in a shopping mall as civilisation slowly collapses around them. The smartness of the film is to be found in the social satire, and the juxtaposition of the mindless zombies and mindless consumers. Simultaneously then, the zombie manages to be both an alien, transgressive monster but also a little bit too like us for comfort.

The same might be said of the rioters. Certainly, sometimes the most transgressive act can be to take values that we encounter (be it in politics, business, or just going about our own business everyday) – selfishness, isolation, aggression – and magnify them manifold and project them back at us. This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between the individual acts (and nor should any of this be taken as an apologia for the riots), but instead simply to point out there is a link. If one wants some examples of this, look no further than the solutions to the riots being advocated by citizens on Facebook, Twitter, and newspaper comment boards, including the deployment of the army, water cannons, plastic bullets and shoot to kill (actually, I should note that the latter idea is not just a social network fad, but actually advocated by one of our esteemed Members of the European Parliament). On top of this, there are a variety of "homebrew" solutions being advocated, which essentially amount to vigilantism. To be clear, the point I am making is not wholly about action (although there have been some disturbing reports emerging about mob justice, especially when stirred up by elements of the far right), but much more about rhetoric and tone. People have a right to defend them homes, businesses and family, and the police have a job to do. What is so disturbing about following the riots via social media is the relish and vitriol with which people are calling for violence against – as they see it – the other. It is almost as if they enjoy such violence.

Of course, in response to this, one might argue that there is a huge amount of difference between "saying" and "doing". And they of course would be right. But that does not mean that they cannot exist on the same scale, and in the same universe. When the dust has settled and politicians, policy-makers and citizens start to think about what these events mean for policy and what they say about our society, that is an idea that must not be lost.